This week’s question is from Salome,
“My 10-year-old son is academically and socially gifted, but has issues around writing, even though he’s an avid reader and speaker. I trace it back to earlier school years where he had mechanical difficulties with fine motor skills, with holding the pencil, forming letters, etc. And my reaction to it was over-practicing and pressuring him to try harder. I’ve come a long way and see how unhelpful that was. Now, he resists writing and it turns into a major battle. What would you suggest I do to help him get over this?”
In this episode, I will address how to overcome writing resistance and difficulties with children. We will discuss the complexities around why writing is one of the biggest academic challenges, and provide you with lots of simple tips, strategies, and resources to encourage writing skill development.
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Writing is one of the most developmentally complex skills
- Writing skills are an extremely common academic challenge among all ages
- Writing involves the integration of many underlying skills in different parts of the brain and body such as vision and motor skills and cognition and thinking
- The act of writing is also complex—grammar, forming words and sentences, proper punctuation, ability to take perspectives, anticipate the reader’s comprehension, etc.
Overcoming writing resistance and challenges
- Step 1: We want them to feel heard, and acknowledge that how they’re feeling is okay
- Step 2: See if you can have them explain or communicate what feels hard/frustrating about it
- Step 3: Become a detective by observing where obstacles are coming up. For example:
- Is it that they are having difficulty coming up with ideas?
- Is it that they don’t feel secure that they know the answers?
- Is it trying to hold the pencil for a long period of time?
- Do they struggle with fluidly and efficiently forming letters to get words down on the page?
- Step 4: Focus on one skill/part at a time, such as brainstorming out loud before the act of writing
- This automatically reduces the feeling of overwhelm, anxiety, stress, embarrassment, frustration, or whatever they’re feeling, which then reduces the amount of resistance.
Tools and Tips for Supporting Writing
- Be a “scribe” for the child: they speak, you write (or reverse the roles)
- That is a great way to assess whether they understand the content, whether they’re able to generate the ideas
- Try dictation apps, worksheets (ex story-webs or outlines), fill-in-the-blank, or a voice recorder on a smart device to capture their words
- Assess their physical environment
- Are the chair, desk, and writing utensils size appropriate? Are they comfortable?
- Is the area distraction-free?
- Do they need music or background sound to soothe or create motivation?
- Use visual or auditory timers during the writing activity. Setting a time limit decreases overwhelm and lowers resistance.
- Seek professional support if needed: physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, or reading specialists
Overcoming Handwriting Challenges
- Basic handwriting ability is a good fundamental skill, but having great penmanship is no longer a necessity for success in life in our technology-driven world
- Handwriting Without Tears is a great curriculum used in schools and clinics
- Work on the underlying motor, vision, integration, and sensory skills so writing becomes easier, such as playing with clay and picking up small objects
- Is grip a problem? Focus on “pincer grip” which is the most efficient grasp for not having the hand get fatigued and for being able to control the movement of the writing instrument
- Assess their physical body:
- Strength and posture: is their body able to support them? Core, neck, shoulders, etc.
- Other developmental considerations: reflex integration, sensory processing, or proprioceptive input issues
Episode Intro … 00:00:30
Listener’s Question … 00:00:54
Complexities of Writing Skills … 00:02:10
Writing Resistance and Challenges … 00:05:25
Modifications for Supporting Writing … 00:11:00
Overcoming Handwriting Challenges … 00:16:00
Episode Wrap up … 00:22:25
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Hi everyone, welcome to the show, I am Dr. Nicole, and on today’s episode, I am answering a question from one of you. I get lots of questions each week, and this gives me an opportunity to provide answers that many of you might find helpful. If you have a question you’d like me to consider answering on a future episode, email it to email@example.com and you just might hear it on an upcoming show.
Now, onto today’s question, which comes to us from Salome, who writes: “My 10-year-old son is academically and socially gifted, but has issues around writing, even though he is a serious, avid reader and speaker. I trace it back to earlier school years where he had mechanical difficulties with fine motor skills, with holding the pencil, forming letters, etc. And my reaction to it was over-practicing and pressuring him to try harder. I’ve come a long way and see how unhelpful that was. Now, he resists writing and it turns into a major battle. What would you suggest I do to help him get over this?”
Well, Salome, great question, one that I know many parents can relate to because writing is one of the biggest academic challenge areas and areas where kids can struggle for a variety of reasons that we’ll talk about, so I think this will be relevant to lots of people. Now, Salome has a 10-year-old, and so I’m going to talk about it through that lens, but also recognize that these things apply whether you have a little one who is just starting to develop some handwriting or writing kids of skills, or you have even an older child, a high schooler, or beyond.
Okay. So let’s dive in, and as always, let’s think about the big picture things that I think are important to understand and consider first. In this case, we need to recognize that writing is one of the most developmentally complex skills that we ask kids to do, because it involves so many underlying skills in different parts of the brain and body, it involves integration of a lot of those areas and skills, integration of things like vision with motor skills, with cognition and thinking, with communication, and lots of other things. So I think this is why we see writing, not just handwriting, but the act of writing, producing written responses, whether that’s short answers to questions on a homework assignment, or whether that’s writing a paper or writing a paragraph or a story — That’s why this is such a common challenge, because there are so many individual skills and abilities that need to come together in order to be able to do that. And so it’s tough, especially if a child has developmental delays in one or more areas, learning challenges, whether they are diagnosed with learning disabilities are not, any type of learning or processing challenge, attention and focus issues, sensory integration and processing issues, behavioral issues — all of those things make it much more likely that writing is going to be a challenge and something that you’re going to need to work at with them to overcome. When we ask kids to write things, especially if we say, “Well write a few sentences about something you did over the weekend”, or “Write a story about this”, or “Write a paper”, or whatever it might be, they have to be able to generate thoughts, ideas, facts, they have to know pieces of information, they have to generate the content. And then they have to be able to turn that into words and sentences that will make sense to other people. So, they have to not only be able to do the grammar pieces and understand how to form words and sentences and get it down on paper and use punctuation and all that, but they also have to be able to perspective take to understand what might be in the mind of the reader, what they need to include, what they need to explain, how the reader is going to understand what they’re writing, and they have to be able to get all that down physically on the paper. So as I’m talking through that, hopefully you’re starting to see that there are so many parts and places within this process where things can feel challenging and can go wrong for kids. Whether it’s struggling to come up with the ideas, or maybe not knowing the answer to the question being asked, to anything like not knowing proper sentence structure, or being able to actually form the letters on the page. So many components here, and I think we need to start with understanding what’s going on with kids and their resistance around writing or their challenges around writing, we have to start by understanding these big picture things.
So as always, when a child is struggling with anything, whether they are remaining calm and explicitly telling us, “I’m frustrated, I’m overwhelmed, I’m having a hard time with this writing”, or they are acting out and communicating those feelings through their behavior: Crossing their arms and refusing to pick up the pencil and write, or tearing up the paper, or crying or whatever it might be, we want to start by acknowledging that it’s difficult and empathizing with them. “I know this is really hard. Boy, writing is such a hard thing. There’s so many parts to it, I can see that you’re feeling really overwhelmed by this.” We want them to feel heard, and we want to acknowledge that how they’re feeling is okay. It’s okay that they’re feeling overwhelmed or frustrated. Now, remember, emotions are always fine. They are allowed to have whatever feeling they have, whether or not you agree that that’s what they should be feeling. Your perspective might be, “They know how to do this, they’ve done this before, this shouldn’t be an issue.” Okay, that’s your perspective. But to them, in that moment, they may be feeling overwhelmed, or insecure, or frustrated or whatever. So we want to respond to that and acknowledge that and empathize, and see if you can have them help explain or communicate what feels hard about it. Is it trying to hold the pencil for a long period of time? Is it that they are having difficulty coming up with ideas? Is it that they don’t feel secure that they know the answers? Sometimes kids, when we empathize and slow things down and help them to know that we’re there to support them with it, sometimes they’re able to articulate to us what parts of it are feeling hard. And sometimes they’re not. Sometimes kids aren’t. And for those kids, we need to observe closely. We need to become detectives, we need to watch as they are engaging in different kinds of writing tasks, in academic tasks in general. We need to watch and take note for where we think the obstacles are coming up, “Wow, he seems to really get fatigued having to hold the pencil and write for longer than five minutes”, or “Boy, he seems to really struggle with coming up with ideas”, or “He seems to shut down right away if he thinks he doesn’t know what the answer is, and then he won’t write it on the paper.” So you start to observe and kind of make a list of where you think the hang ups or the issues might be coming in.
Then it’s really important to find ways to break down the task and focus on one skill at a time. As I said a few minutes ago with the big picture of all of this, writing being such a collection and a combination of complex skills and abilities, this is where that really comes into play of breaking it down and focusing on one skill at a time. Because if your child is struggling, let’s say with fluidly and efficiently and quickly forming letters to get words down on the page, and they also struggle with being able to come up with ideas of what to write about, or they struggle with being able to connect experiences they’ve had to being able to put that into written form in a way that makes sense to other people, if they’ve got both of those issues going on and we try to tackle all of the pieces of that at once, we’re not going to get very far. It’s going to be really frustrating for them. So we want to look at what we actually want to target when we’re doing a certain assignment or a certain activity. In the case of a child who struggles not only with forming their letters, and writing the words on the page, but also with coming up with ideas, we may in an assignment — let’s say the assignment is “Write a paragraph about what you did last weekend.” We may decide to focus on, in that moment and in that activity, we’re just going to focus on idea generation. I’m going to help my child practice thinking about what he did over the weekend, brainstorming, getting some ideas, talking about it, and getting the idea piece in place. Okay, if that’s what I’m going to focus on, then I’m not going to also try to have him do the handwriting part and write it out. Maybe I’ll do that for him. Maybe I’ll let him dictate his story or his paragraph into the computer or his iPad. I’m not going to focus on the handwriting piece. And there may be other times where you say, okay, right now I’m going to focus on the handwriting piece, and I’m going to do a lot of supporting to come up with the ideas. So I’m going to take that off of his plate, because right now we’re going to really practice with getting the words down on paper. So you need to pick and choose because if you try to focus on all the different areas at once, it’s going to be really overwhelming. So look for ways to break that down. It could be that the child thinks of the answers or ideas and you write them, or maybe allow them to type if that’s something that they’re good at. Or again, like I said, you provide the answers or you help them, you do a lot of the heavy lifting with generating the ideas, maybe putting them into sentence form, and then you let them write it. So we’re picking and choosing focusing on one thing at a time. And that automatically reduces the feeling of overwhelm, of anxiety, of stress, of maybe embarrassment, frustration, whatever they’re feeling, which then reduces the amount of resistance. So that’s key.
Now, let’s talk through some accommodations or modifications that can be helpful for a child who’s struggling with writing. And these are in no particular order, but these are things that over time, both working in classrooms, as well as with kids in the clinic, and my own children, have been helpful. So one is simply to let the child speak or talk through the answers and you do the writing. This is called being a scribe. And we can even have this written in accommodation support plans for kids in school settings, who really struggle with this, that when they’re taking tests, they’re allowed to do that verbally, someone else writes down the answers. So that’s you acting in the scribe role, and that is a great way to assess whether they understand the content, whether they’re able to generate the ideas. We’re taking that frustrating writing piece out of it for them. Dictation apps can be great, these have come so, so far, there are so many of them for all kinds of devices and platforms for young kids all the way through college age and adults, to be able to dictate ideas and have the app then put it into a typed format that can be great for kids. Kids being able to record their responses, maybe it’s a worksheet or something, and they use the voice recorder on their smartphone or their tablet or their school computer or whatever, and they record their responses and send it to the teacher that way. Sometimes we can do fill in the blanks, as opposed to having to write out the entire response. That can be an easier way to do it. Some kids do really well if they have an assortment of really cool pens or pencils or markers or writing implements that feel really comfortable to them, that work well for them, letting them make a choice of what they use, what colors that can be helpful. It can also be a great accommodation or support to let them play some music that’s motivating or soothing for them, things that help to keep them feeling more regulated, and being able to work through the stress and the challenge. It’s really important to create a physical environment that is supportive and comfortable for writing. That may not be sitting at the dining room chair, at the dining room table or sitting at the desk at school. We want to make sure that their body is well supported, feet can be flat and sturdily on the floor. They’re not all hunched over, but they’re not having to reach up too far. A comfortable, really supportive, appropriately-sized work environment for them to be working at, that the environment around them is free of distractions or other people or things that may get in the way. So we want to think about the environment, and again, part of that environment is the writing tool itself. Sometimes I see kids are using pens or pencils or things that just — it’s making their hands too tired, it’s not a good size for them, or they’re having to press too hard, or they are a kid who presses way too hard, and so we don’t want to have a mechanical pencil that’s breaking constantly. So you want to be thinking about those kinds of things.
There are also great apps that you can use to make story webs or outlines. You can do this just even on a piece of paper, helping kids to just brainstorm, generate ideas, start to put the pieces of those together. Great options, lots of software and apps and worksheets, and all kinds of things to use for that. Timers can also help kids to get through the frustration of this. If they’re going to have to struggle through writing something that is hard for them, and you say “I get it, this is really tough, I’m going to have you do it for, let’s say, five minutes. You set the timer, and then I’m going to step in and help you with it.” Using a timer to help give some end point on a task that, to them, might feel endless is important. Because when we feel like there’s no end in sight for something that is really creating a lot of uncomfortable feelings for us and that is really challenging for us, we’re much more resistive or reluctant to do it. So timers, visual timers, auditory timers can help to put sort of a stoplight there, or a light at the end of the tunnel for them to work towards. So those are some ideas to just get your brain coming up with ways that you might be able to support your child with this, working with them at home, and things you might be able to suggest to the school, or talk with the school about as well. Lots of teachers, particularly at the earlier grades have ideas for how to do this. Occupational therapists in the school setting can be great resources for coming up with ideas for supporting the writing piece from a physical standpoint, sensory standpoint, holding the pencil, forming the letters, that kind of thing. Speech language pathologists, reading specialists can be great resources in school settings for ideas around how to help kids with the content piece of things. So those are some professionals that you can lean on for that.
Now, for kids with the handwriting challenges, the actual forming of the letters, getting things down on paper, that’s something over the longer term that you want to practice and work on the underlying skills for. Again, apart from actual functional writing activities, where they’re having to do all of those things at once, come up with the ideas and write it down. So there are some great ways of approaching that. Now I will say, I think that handwriting is something that adults put way more emphasis on and way more pressure on kids than is probably helpful most of the time. And part of that stems from our own experience as kids with maybe going through handwriting curriculums; we learned printing, we learned cursive. We need to recognize that in today’s technology-filled world, having great penmanship is no longer a necessity for success in life, even on a very functional basis. It used to be even years ago, we would say, “Well, you know, your child needs to at least be able to sign their name to endorse a check.” Well, guess what? That’s not even true anymore with online banking and all of that. So I’m not suggesting that it isn’t a good functional skill for kids to be able to have some basic penmanship or handwriting abilities, but it is not nearly as important as we often make it out to be. And I think recognizing that and taking the pressure off of them and us around this is key. If you do feel like your child needs some work around this, they are really struggling, they need to at least be able to do things like write their name, and some basics like fill out a job application, although even that is mostly online now, it’s important to recognize that you’re not going to accomplish that just by having them practice over and over and over forming letters and words. Here’s why: kids who are struggling with that stuff often have very haphazard, inefficient, ineffective ways that they are trying to make their letters look like what’s on the page. And when we just do repetitive practice of inefficient, ineffective ways of forming those letters, we’re reinforcing a way of writing that is not efficient, that isn’t fluid, and that is very time intensive and stressful. So we want to be focusing on ways that help them learn how to form their letters and how to do handwriting in a way that is efficient and effective. And we have to recognize that that is about a lot more than just putting a pencil in their hand and having them trace or copy letters. There are a lot of developmental foundations for handwriting, and I would see even older kids and teens who are lacking some of the early developmental foundations that would allow handwriting to be a lot more efficient and effective for them. So there’s a great curriculum that I love and have used as a teacher and in the clinic, and highly recommend: Handwriting Without Tears, which is a beautifully laid out, developmentally appropriate way of working on these things with kids. Lots of tools online, you can order them.
Some other tips of things that you want to be focusing on if your child really struggles with pencil skills like holding the pencil, or the crayon or the pen or whatever and forming the letters: You want to start with lots of small motor activities. You want to be using those small muscles in the hands, in the arm, you want to be working on coordination of the eyes and the hands. So things like using tweezers to pick up cotton balls and put them in a container across the table, pinching things, making pinch pots with clay, playing with play-dough and clay with your hands. All of those kinds of small motor activities like picking up small items, counting them and putting them in containers. Those are working on the underlying motor, vision, integration and sensory skills that are needed to allow a child to have appropriate handwriting. Another tip if a kid’s really struggling with holding a pencil, proper grip and all of that, give them a really tiny piece of a broken crayon or a small golf pencil that forces what’s called this “pincer grip” that we want them to have. The reason that’s important is because that is the most efficient grasp for not having the hand get fatigued, and for being able to control the movement of the writing instrument. So that can be a great starting point for a kid who is really struggling with their grasp, or is holding writing implements really inefficiently, and it’s impacting their ability to form letters and words, and they’re getting tired all the time. Start with something really tiny that you put in their fingers that they can grip and that will help with that.
Also important to recognize some of the big underlying developmental pieces are things like having enough core strength to be able to hold the body up, to be able to support the torso, the head, the arms, the shoulder, stabilizing the shoulder, all of these pieces that occupational therapists and even physical therapists and people who focus on these aspects of child development can be really helpful with addressing these things. There can be reflex integration issues that can be at the root of a kid struggling. They may have sensory processing issues. They may need more of what we call “proprioceptive input”, firm input to the joints to be able to stabilize their arm, and be able to get things down on the paper. So I throw this out there, not because in this podcast episode I’m going to be able to address all those, but just because I want you to have an appreciation for all the developmental pieces that need to be in place and that come together to allow a child to efficiently and effectively engage in writing tasks. Hopefully, you can see that writing difficulties are common for a reason. Not only are the difficulties common, but the power struggles and the resistance and the overwhelm are very common. And I hope that you have some appreciation for the complexity and why your child might be struggling, because that in and of itself goes a long way to being able to support them effectively, both empathizing with how they’re feeling and helping them feel heard and seen, but also coming up with effective supports and strategies.
So I hope that this has been helpful for Salome and any of you who are dealing with resistive or intense behavior when your child is frustrated with writing tasks or needs to engage in writing things. Remember, if you have a question you’d like to hear answered on a future show, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. It would be great if you could put “Podcast Question” in the subject line so my team can sort those out. Thank you as always for being here and for listening and I will catch you back here next time.